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Royal Barge Procession 2019, Bangkok, Thailand
December 12, 2019
The magnificent Royal Barge Procession in Thailand, a very rare and grand event with much splendour, will take place again this December after a seven-year-long hiatus. Involving 52 elaborately crafted royal barges and no less than 2,200 oarsmen in traditional costume, it will be the final event marking the year-long celebrations of the new Thai King’s coronation.
The Royal Barge Procession (Krabuan Phayuhayattra Chonlamak transliterated from Thai) typically stretches over a length of one kilometre on Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River and is about 100 metres wide. Rowed in tight formation, the gilded vessels will take about 50 minutes to complete their journey with the rowers plunging their oars into the waters in perfect unison to the beat of drums, swiftly or slowly depending on the currents on that day.
The main coronation event of Thailand’s new King Maha Vajiralongkorn – or King Rama X – already took place earlier this year in May when he was carried on a royal palanquin in full regalia near the Grand Palace. The Royal Barge Procession in December is a waterborne version of the same event – the Chao Phraya River is the Thai capital’s busiest waterway with lots of smaller tributaries and canals, earning Bangkok its moniker ‘Venice of the East’.
The Thai kingdom’s navy officers – selected for their strength – have been practicing and training for this important event for over a year, with about half of the 1,200 rowers taking part for the first time.
The vessels of the Royal Barge Procession
The royal barges are exquisitely crafted masterpieces of traditional Thai art. The most important vessel is no doubt the Suphannahong or ‘Golden Swan’, a 46-metre-long shimmering barge with its bow in the shape of a swan’s head. It’s this vessel, built during the reign of King Vajiravudh in 1911, that will carry the Thai King and his wife Queen Suthida.
Apart from the ‘Golden Swan’, there are three other ancient barges that will take centre stage in the flotilla. Built around the same period as the ‘Golden Swan’, the Anantanakkharat has its bow shaped in the form of a mythical serpent, the seven-headed naga, in gold lacquer and glass jewels.
Next one up is called the Anekkachatphuchong with its numerous small naga-head figures as ornaments. Built during King Chulalongkorn’s reign in the late 19th century, it’s the oldest of the four royal barges.
Finally, the Narai Song Suban King Rama IX has the Hindu god Vishnu as its main feature, riding the mythical bird-human creature the Garuda. It was the only royal barge built during the 70-year-long reign of the previous King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
Thailand’s Royal Barge Processions
One of Thailand’s oldest traditions dating back to over 700 years, the Royal Barge Processions have their origins in ancient naval battle flotilla. In peacetime they were used as part of religious and royal ceremonies and to welcome foreign dignitaries.
After being suspended in 1932, Thailand’s previous King Bhumibol – who paid a lot of attention to the preservation of Thailand’s traditional art and culture – reinstated the processions again in 1959. Seventeen Royal Barge Processions took place during the 70 years of his reign with the last one in 2012.
Officially called the ‘Royal Kathin Barge Procession’, this ancient tradition only takes place during very rare, national occasions such as the coronation of a new king.
The Royal Barges Museum in Bangkok
If you miss the historical Royal Barge Procession this December, you still have the opportunity to admire the vessels’ elaborate Thai craftsmanship inside the Royal Barges Museum in Bangkok. The museum houses eight historical royal barges, each carved from huge pieces of teak, gilded and elaborately decorated with shimmering glass.
This unique collection includes the Suphannahong or ‘Golden Swan’ (see above) which will carry the King and Queen during the December procession, and is believed to be the world’s largest boat carved from a single piece of wood. Also on display inside the museum is a unique collection of historical photos of previous processions and former vessels destroyed during WW2 bombings or fires.
Please note that some of the barges will be absent in the museum during the run-up to the December event, but the advantage of the museum is that you can admire these stunning vessels from up close after the procession has taken place.
The warehouse museum is located near the Phra Pin Klao Bridge on the banks of a canal off the Chao Phraya River (Thonburi side). The nearest pier is “Wang Lang Pier” (N10) which can be reached by Chao Phraya Express Boat and from where it’s a short walk. Entry fee is only about 100 Baht including the right to take photos. Opening times: 9am to 5pm, every day. Address: 80/1 Rim Khlong Bangkok Noi Arun Amarin, Bangkok 10700.
Where will the Royal Barge Procession 2019 take place
The procession will go along a four-kilometre stretch down the Chao Phraya River that runs through the heart of Bangkok. Thousands of onlookers are expected to gather for the spectacle with local authorities providing free bus services and information in Thai, Chinese and English.
For more Thai events, visit our Festivals in Thailand page.
The procession is expected to start at 3:30pm at Wasukri Pier from where the King and Queen will go down the river to the famous Wat Arun, also known as ‘the Temple of Dawn’ for a Buddhist ceremony.
Please be aware that there will be strict, enforced regulations in place that will forbid anyone to observe the procession from the balcony of hotel or condo rooms overlooking the event. Instead, a number of sites along the route have been reserved for public viewing, including: Santichai Prakan Park; Thammasart University; Nagaraphirom Park; Siriraj Hospital; King Bhumibol’s 72nd Birthday Anniversary Park; and underneath Rama VIII Bridge (Thonburi). The usual traffic of boats on the Chao Phraya River will be completely stopped during this time.
If you can’t watch the procession outdoors then note that it will also be broadcast live on TV.
Finally, please be aware that Thailand has one of the world’s strictest lèse majesté laws in place that strictly forbid any criticism of the Thai Royals. If in doubt, inform yourself about the Do’s and Don’ts when attending any royal event.
When will the Royal Barge Procession 2019 take place
The procession will take place on Thursday 12 December 2019, starting at 3:30pm and lasting about 50 minutes. However, note that the dates and times can be subject to change without much notice. Originally the Royal Barge Procession was initially planned to take place on 24 October but was postponed, a week before it was meant to take place, to 12 December. Check the local news for the latest updates.
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Cover image: Royal barges going down the Chao Phraya River in 2006 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of King Bhumibol’s accession to the throne. Photo by AsianInsights.
Why not stay longer in Thailand and discover the north such as the kingdom’s second city nicknamed “Rose of the North” with its magnificent Chiang Mai Flower Festival in February.